Erin Schuman awarded prestigious Körber Prize for pioneering research on neuronal protein synthesis

June 27, 2024

Erin Schuman, director at the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research in Frankfurt, has been awarded the prestigious Körber European Science Prize, worth one million euros. Schuman’s work has revolutionised our understanding of how neurons work. Her research has shown that proteins critical for neuron communication, memory storage and overall brain development are produced locally at synapses, the junctions between neurons. This discovery overturns the long-held belief that proteins are only made in the neuron cell body.

Revolutionary Discovery

Before Schuman's groundbreaking research, it was widely believed that proteins were synthesized in the cell body of the neuron and then transported to the synapses. This view presented a logistical challenge given the vast and complex network of synapses. Schuman's research challenged this notion by showing that synapses can produce proteins independently, even when separated from their cell bodies. This local production mechanism explains how neurons efficiently manage their extensive synaptic networks, which are critical for learning and memory.

Edvard Moser, Nobel Laureate in Physiology and Medicine and Chairman of the Körber Prize Selection Committee, emphasizes the importance of Schuman's work. He explains that if proteins were only produced in the cell body, neurons would face an enormous challenge in sorting and transporting proteins to the correct synapses. “With many thousands of synapses per neuron and hundreds of thousands of proteins generated per minute, the required sorting and transporting would be at an astronomic scale,” says Moser. Schuman's discovery that proteins are produced locally at synapses solves this problem and advances our understanding of neuronal function.

Future Research and Potential Treatments

Building on her revolutionary findings, Schuman aims to delve deeper into the role of proteins in brain disorders. "There is increasing evidence that many neurodevelopmental and neurodegenerative diseases are diseases of the synapse," she notes. Examples include Fragile X syndrome, Huntington’s disease, and Rett syndrome. These diseases are associated with a reduction or total loss of cognitive performance, learning disabilities and delayed linguistic development. Using the funding from the Körber Prize, Schuman plans to investigate the synaptic changes produced by these diseases. This research could lead to molecular-level treatments, offering new hope for those affected by these disorders.

About Erin Schuman

Born in 1963 in San Gabriel, California, Erin Schuman has been director at the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research in Frankfurt since 2009. She received her undergraduate degree in psychology from the University of Southern California and her Ph.D. in neuroscience from Princeton University. She was a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University and a faculty member at the California Institute of Technology. In 1997, she became a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator. Schuman is a member of the German National Academy of Science, Leopoldina, the U.S. National Academy of Science as well as a Foreign Member of the U.K.’s Royal Society. In 2023, she was awarded the coveted Brain Prize, bestowed by Denmark’s Lundbeck Foundation.

About the Körber Prize

The Körber European Science Prize, which is endowed with one million euros, will be presented to Erin Schuman on September 20, 2024 in the Grand Hall of the Hamburg City Hall. The prize, one of the world's most valuable scientific awards, honors major scientific breakthroughs in Europe. The money is to be used for research and science communication, with ten percent being available for the prize winner’s personal purposes. The Körber Foundation has been awarding the prize since 1985, and eight recipients have gone on to win the Nobel Prize.

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